Air Transportation: The CH-53K Conspiracy


May 2, 2010:  Three years ago the U.S. Marine Corps began working an undated version of their heavy, CH-53E, transport helicopters. The new version was the CH-53K. First flight of a CH-53K was to take place next year, with first CH-53Ks entering service in three years. But now this has all been delayed. First flight won't take place for three years, and the CH-53K won't enter service until 2015. Technical problems are blamed, although helicopter advocates imply that the marines don't want to take money away from their MV-22 program to keep the CH-53K program on schedule.

But there is still a lot of enthusiasm for the CH-53K. Last year, the marines decided to replace their elderly CH-53Ds with CH-53Ks, rather than the more expensive MV-22s. The CH-53K was to cost about $27 million each, compared to about three times that for an MV-22. However, delaying the introduction of the CH-53K will cost over a billion dollars, and add about $5 million to the cost of each CH-53K. Replacing the CH-53Ds means another CH-53Ks, for a total of 190. It's expected that the final costs of the CH-53D will be higher, but still about half the cost of an MV-22.

The Marine Corps currently operates a number of different helicopters and for years has been planning to shrink the number of types to save on operational and procurement costs. Medium and heavy lift helicopters such as the CH-46E (over 200 in use) and the CH-53 A/D (about 70) were originally to be replaced by 348 V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. But delays in that program, and a reduction in the number of V-22s to be built, led to the CH-53K. While the CH-53K is a better cargo hauler, the MV-22 moves twice as fast, and the marines have found that to be a major advantage in combat.

The CH-53E remains one of the few heavy lift helicopters that can operate in the high altitudes in Afghanistan, and they have been heavily used there. The CH-53Es average age is fifteen years, and over 3,000 flight hours. They require 44 man hours of maintenance, for each hour in the air. As a result, it costs about $20,000 for each flight hour. CH-53Es are good for about 6,000 flight hours, before metal fatigue makes them too dangerous to fly. The CH-53K will get cost per flight hour down to about $10,000 (it's $11,000 for the MV-22).

At the present rate of use, the Marines will begin running out of heavy-lift helicopters by 2012. Thus the decision to put the CH-53 back into production in the next five or six years, as the CH-53K. The new model will be sixteen percent heavier (at 42.3 tons) than the CH-53E and be able to carry nearly twice as much (13.5 tons). The CH-53K will be much easier to maintain, and cost about half as much, per flight hour, to operate. Unfortunately, the manufacturer has, once again, promised more than it could deliver, which is apparently the main reason for the delays.




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